WINNIPEG – For the first time in the history of both franchises, the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues will meet in the postseason.
Their first playoff meeting was finally decided in Game 82 of the 2018-19 regular season, which fittingly meant something for both teams. So the table is set for a first-round, best-of-seven series with both teams determined and home ice secured for Winnipeg.
Now in order to perhaps handicap what might transpire over the next two weeks, here’s a preview of what to look for and how either team could fare in a matchup that no one back in December predicted would take place.
When the calendar turned to 2019, the Blues found themselves dead last in the 31-team NHL. On Jan. 2, they were 15-18-4 and possessed a goal differential of minus-21. Since then, they posted a 30-10-5 run to finish third in the Central Division with a plus-24 goal differential – an incredible 45-goal swing in just over three months.
You don’t have that kind of turnaround by simply relying on outscoring your mistakes. Something changed in the Blues’ defensive scheme shortly after Craig Berube took over as interim head coach on Nov. 19 following Mike Yeo’s firing. The Blues were also buoyed defensively by the emergence of stable goaltending following the surprise call-up of rookie Jordan Binnington on Dec. 9. Those two single transactions in large part started the about-face for St. Louis and as a result they defended better to surrender just 223 goals against this season, the third fewest in the Western Conference behind only Dallas and Nashville. And that’s 21 goals-against fewer than the Jets allowed. As a result, these changes catapulted the Blues into a position to challenge for a Stanley Cup, a situation last Christmas that was considered unfathomable. Therefore, you have to believe the Blues are not going to abandon the investment they made to defensive hockey just because the playoffs have arrived.
The Jets, meanwhile, struggled defensively for most of the season. After shaving off 38 goals-against from a year ago for a total of 218, the club’s goals against swelled again to 244 this season. Winnipeg wasn’t horrible defensively this year, but they were prone to turnovers, ill-advised passes in the middle of the ice, some bad sort outs and soft goals. Of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference, they allowed the second-most goals against, only two fewer goals than the Colorado Avalanche, the second wild card qualifying team who allowed 246.
Advantage: St. Louis
The Jets have the ability to outscore their mistakes. In fact, they have the offensive leverage to blow the doors off teams. Offence came so easy to the Jets at points this season that they appeared to look bored after lighting the lamp and their celebrations were…..well…..lame! But facts are facts and they were among the top 5 in the league with 272 goals for and the highest-scoring team in their division for the second straight year. Their goal differential was plus-28, second highest to only Calgary, the Western Conference’s best team when the dust settled on the regular season on Saturday.
The Jets can score on the power play, short-handed and five-on-five. They possessed three 30-goal scorers in Mark Scheifele (38), Kyle Connor (34) and Patrik Laine (30) and another two players with 20 or more in Nikolaj Ehlers (21) and Blake Wheeler (20). They also had 34 goals from their blueline even with Dustin Byfuglien missing 40 games.
The Blues scored 25 fewer goals than Winnipeg this season with Russian sniper Vladimir Tarasenko the only player to top the 30-goal mark at 33. Ryan O’Reilly (28) and David Perron (23) were the only other players to amass over 20 goals this season for St. Louis. For what’s it worth, the Jets won the season series between the two teams 3-1 and outscored the Blues 18-10, including 8-4 in St. Louis on Nov. 24 when Laine scored five times. In the last 14 games between the two teams the Jets have won 11 times.
The Jets’ power play finished fourth in the league at a 24.8 per cent conversion rate. It was an area of the team’s game that was fairly consistent and motored along to a second-best, league rating on home ice at 31.4 per cent. However, it did sputter down the stretch, going four for 26 (15 per cent) over the last 10 games and Laine, who led the club with 15 man advantage goals, scored just once on the power play in the last 20 games. But the Jets’ power play is more than a one-trick pony and there is certainly enough weapons to get the job completed as Scheifele (12 PPG) and Connor (11 PPG) were also prolific on the team’s top power play unit.
The Blues’ power play was top 10 this season, finishing at 21.1 per cent. Their power-play units scored 12 fewer goals than Winnipeg on 13 fewer chances. Tarasenko led St. Louis with 12 PPG, but after that there was a sharp drop off behind him with Perron (seven) and O’Reilly (six) next in order. For what it’s worth both teams allowed seven short-handed goals against this season,
On the penalty kill, the Blues were stingy, finishing at 81.5 per cent (ninth overall) and were shorthanded 18 fewer times than Winnipeg. The Jets were at 79.2 per cent (22nd overall). Winnipeg did produce 10 short-handed goals while the Blues managed just five. Based on the old theory about a better penalty kill trumping a solid power play in the playoffs, the edge here belongs to St. Louis.
Advantage: St. Louis
Experience in goal is crucial at this time of year. Whether it was memorable or forgettable, each time you step further beyond your mental background you gain knowledge to draw from in the future. The pressure, expectations and momentum swings are acute.
As such, the Jets should be well prepared in this department for whatever comes their way in the series, especially based on the team advancing to the Western Conference final last season and the adversity they faced down the stretch of the regular season. Now, there will be a lot of chatter about Binnington’s play since his call-up from San Antonio (AHL) before Christmas and how he backstopped the Blues’ turnaround – and rightly so. He is also an exceptional puck handler and will provide a challenge for the Jets to make effective shoot-ins and hard rims to capture puck possession on the forecheck. But zero NHL playoff games amounts to just that – zero experience on the NHL’s biggest stage.
Enter Connor Hellebuyck, who witnessed first-hand last May what playoff experience in goal can do for a team when he was understandably outdueled by Vegas Golden Knights starter Marc-Andre Fluery in the conference final. But what he learned from that involvement was invaluable moving into this year. The 25-year-old began trending upward significantly since the end of February and it could be argued he played his best hockey of the regular season in the last six weeks while the organization made sure he wasn’t overworked toward the finish line.
Sure, Binnington’s (1.89 GAA; .927 SV%, 32 games) numbers were better than Hellebuyck’s (2.90 GAA; .913 SV%, 63 games) in half the outings, but the experience Hellebuyck possesses over the rookie 25-year-old Binnington should provide Winnipeg with an important edge. Hellebuyck’s playoff past performance sheet is decent too, with a 9-8 record, 2.36 GAA and .922 SV% and nearly 200 more games in NHL service time than his counterpart for St. Louis.
Is there a bigger wild card in this series than Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien? Of all the players involved in this first-round set, he is the only one that has hoisted the Stanley Cup. He is also a unicorn of a player or “one-of-one” as teammate Blake Wheeler calls him. In other words, there is no other player like him and the fact that he was able to find his way back into the lineup for the final five regular season games coming off a lower-body injury could allow him to be the difference-maker in the series, and quickly.
Byfuglien was a force early on in last year’s post-season against the Minnesota Wild and he sure looked playoff snarly in the last few games last week with the way he manhandled the likes of Chicago’s Drake Caggiula and Arizona’s Vinnie Hinostroza. It is also all but confirmed the Jets will have Josh Morrissey in the lineup for the series. He is arguably the team’s best defenceman and his return will certainly shore up the team’s defensive play and its ability to advance the puck up the ice quickly and precisely.
The Blues do have one of the best faceoff centres in the league in O’Reilly. He finished at 57 per cent effective on draws this season (eighth overall), but of the players in the top 10 in that category he took 30 more faceoffs than anyone else. He is also extremely tough at home, winning nearly 60 per cent of his draws and will be thrust into taking almost every important draw in his own zone. Starting with the puck will be an asset for St. Louis because of O’Reilly.
Aside from throwing a bevy of numbers around to make our point as to which team has the advantage in this series, there are some determining factors that you can’t attach something numerical to. For instance, how much will home ice mean to the Jets? Does the experience of advancing to the Western Conference last year really account for anything to Winnipeg? Where is Laine’s interest level in all of this? Does the bubble burst on Binnington?
The bottom line is this is not a just-happy-to-be-here mentality for the Jets. It’s business – unfinished or incomplete – for a team that feels it’s ready for the next step and excited to jump through the window of opportunity for a Stanley Cup right now. It is acknowledged the Jets weren’t clicking on all cylinders when the season concluded, but they’ll be a tough out based on many of the items we presented above.
On the other hand, the Blues are elated with their advancement to the postseason and tickled with their resurrection mid-season. But you wonder if the Cinderella component to their second-half awakening might end abruptly in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Both teams fought adversity this season – with St. Louis early on and the Jets later – although none of that counts now and with Winnipeg’s playoff experience and home ice advantage it’s their series to lose.
Prediction: Winnipeg in seven